I’ve been reading a lot lately about college degrees that are apparently “worthless.” Listed among these so-called worthless degrees are fields like English, Fine Arts, and – my undergraduate major – History.
Every time I read such an article, I find myself foaming at the mouth, trying to control my emotions as I prepare a proper defense of my history degree and, more broadly, of a liberal arts education in general. I remember articles extolling the virtues of a liberal arts degree or why the humanities are still vitally important in today’s career-driven undergraduate courses.
The fact is, I made a very conscious decision to study what I did as a college undergrad, knowing full well that the courses I took were not preparing me for a job, but for a career. When I first arrived at my college – Duke University, for the record – I wasn’t committed to any major. Many people don’t know that Duke is basically a liberal arts school. We only have two “schools”: Trinity College, which is the liberal arts school with majors like history, biology, and econ, and the Pratt School of Engineering. If we didn’t have Pratt, Duke would be a liberal arts school; we’re not a place where you can get an undergraduate business degree or major in nursing or education.
The benefits of my liberal arts degree and my passion for the humanities are, in my opinion, endless. But since you probably don’t want to read a 25,000 word treatise on the virtues of my undergraduate education, I’ve condensed it all to three key reasons:
#1: It Puts Your Education In A Greater Context
We’ve all heard the saying, “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” A liberal arts degree that forces students to take courses in history, religion, and other humanities courses teaches undergrads that the world does not revolve around them. Being able to put their world – and their place in it – into a broader context is vital to seeing the big picture; and any professional – whether a chemist in a lab or a businessman on the stock market floor – will tell you that big picture thinking is crucial to success.
That greater context allows us to appreciate the world we live in. It allows us to learn foreign languages and gives us insights into foreign cultures. It makes the world smaller, because, through the humanities, we realize how, on a human scale, how interconnected and interdependent we truly are.
#2: It Teaches You How To Learn
Consider this: when most of us were kids, Pluto was still a planet; a hundred years ago, many scientists believe in phrenology, the idea that a person’s personality could be mapped based on the size and shape of their skull; 200 years ago, evolution wasn’t even a concept.
What’s my point? That scientific facts – even widely held ones – change over time; sometimes, they change overnight. So what you learn today in your college biology class may be wrong tomorrow. But the lessons learned from a study of the humanities never change. Those big picture educational goals of liberal arts education – things like critical thinking, strong written and oral communications skills, and analyzing sets of historical data to predict future experiences – are largely immortal. In this way, the humanities are far more flexible and versatile than other fields of study, something that’s crucial in a working world where employees not only job hop more than ever before, but make total changes to their career, too.
#3: It Helps Us Recognize Our Own Impact
Most career-specific college majors point us to predefined conclusions; A leads to B, and B leads to C. But the humanities really teach us how to interpret all that. For example, science can show us the physiological impact of a change to our diet; but when you add the humanities in to the picture, you can see how the needs and wants of the human diet have changed over time, why people had to leave food-unstable regions, and the impact of these migrations.
In fact, today many employers are looking for students with inter-disciplinary degrees, undergraduate (or graduate) majors that bridge the sciences and the humanities, that focus on the liberal arts instead of an obsession with the knowledge necessary for a single type of job or career.
In summary, I’d argue that while you can probably be a good employee with a career-centric degree, you’d be a better person and global citizen if you spent some time with the humanities.
Do you see the benefit in the humanities or a liberal arts education? Why or why not?